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  • Katica Roy

An Economic Case for Refugees

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

It was 1956, and for almost two months my father and three eldest sisters lived in a refugee camp in Austria. Then, on Christmas Day, President Eisenhower granted my family safe passage to the United States. They arrived to their new home on the iconic Air Force One.

During chaos and confusion, President Eisenhower showed my family grace, and I am grateful. President Eisenhower gave my family and many others the gift of safe passage. More than that, he gave us the enduring gifts of hope and freedom. He gave us the opportunity to be part of America’s story.

Eisenhower bent the arc of history toward inclusion. My vision with Pipeline™ is to do the same.

We are in the Largest Refugee Crisis

You may have heard it before: we have more people displaced in the world than ever before, this number includes refugees. Just my like sisters, children currently make up more than half of the world’s refugees, and women and girls also make up half of the world’s refugees. The increasing number of refugees is due to long-standing conflicts that have displaced millions of people in Africa and the Middle East. Providing economic opportunities for refugees also provides opportunities for children including education and healthcare. Protecting refugee children has been called a test of our humanity.

Resettling refugees should not be viewed as mere charity — it’s advantageous for everyone, as refugees can uniquely address a growing global issue: the labor shortage. Researchers from Stanford University and ETH Zurich have developed an algorithm that helps resettle refugees in the best location to increase their chances of employment. In 2016, if the algorithm had been used to place refuges their employment rate would have increased by 41%. This is not only the right thing to do, it’s good for our economy.

While the United States has shone as a beacon of light for refugees, we are now consistently reducing the number of refugees admitted into the country. We are at one of the lowest levels of refugee admittance since the program started over 30 years ago. In 2016 and 2017, the United States admitted 85,000 and 53,000 refugees respectively. In 2018, the United States plans to admit 45,000 refugees, and 30,000 in 2019.

An Economic Case for Refugees

Accepting, protecting and supporting refugees is a win-win-win formula: for the refugees themselves, for the country of destination and for the country of origin.

  • It’s estimated that for every euro spent on refugees, the European economy will grow by more than 1.84 euros within five years.

  • The OECD assessed the impact of immigrants on its members’ finances in 2007-09. It found they made a net average fiscal contribution of around 0.35 percent of GDP, with little variation from country to country.

  • Utica, New York, is known as “the town that loves refugees.” Why? Welcoming in refugees turned around Utica’s economic decline.

  • In Lebanon, every 1 percent increase in Syrian refugees increases Lebanese service exports by 1.5 percent.

  • The real GDP in the average Nordic country will be about 2.5 percent higher by 2020 if migration continues.

We see it time and time again — refugees benefit an economy, with few economic downsides.

Removing Barriers, Unlocking Potential

The faster refugees integrate into the labor force, the faster they can become productive members of society, and not just as employees. In the United States, for example, while refugees are 15 percent of the population, they represent 25 percent of all entrepreneurs. By creating new businesses, refugees also create new jobs for everyone. In the United States, it’s small businesses like these that create about 1.5 million jobs every year.

Unfortunately, refugees face barriers which make it difficult for them to positively contribute to the economy.

For example, when my father arrived in the United States over 61 years ago, he held degrees in political science, economics and law. Unfortunately, his degrees were not recognized as valid in the United States, and he had to go back to school to attain a new degree while learning English and supporting a family of five.

The barriers faced by refugees vary and should be addressed in order to unlock refugees’ economic potential. For instance:

  • Refugees are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to immigrants.

  • Refugees report poor language skills as a barrier to securing work.

  • Refugees holding doctoral degrees in medicine, pharmacy or dentistry were unable to find matching jobs after an average of 1.8 years in the United States.

A Pathway to Success

When we provide refugees with equitable access to opportunities both refugees and the U.S. benefit. How can we provide equitable access?

A good place to start is with service programs that welcome refugees into the workforce and provide shadowing opportunities in areas of career interest. The same programs train refugees in job-hunting skills such as effective resume writing and strong interviewing. Additionally, language barriers should be eliminated as soon as possible, as language is the first and most important reason for greater success in education and work.

We Can Do Better

My father fought to keep his family safe and in doing so, became an example of the ‘American dream.’ My mother, an immigrant herself, emigrated to America in the hopes of creating a better life.

As refugee and immigrant parents after them, my parents broke down barriers because they believed in an America where children have equitable opportunities. Now it’s our turn. We can fix a broken system; we can bend the arc of history toward inclusion.


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